Marjory Stoneman Douglas: The Writer as Champion

The name of Marjory Stoneman Douglas entered the news in 2018 with the tragic loss of seventeen lives in a South Florida high school, so this is a good time to remember her for arguably the most important book ever written by a Floridian. The Everglades: River of Grass (1947) almost singlehandedly launched the modern conservation movement in America. A sample:

Clouds and the smoke of fires stand far off and are sunk in it, like the smoke of ships at sea. This is the Everglades at their greatest concentration, a world of nothing but saw grass. Nothing seems to live here but a few insects, hawks, working a few acres, buzzards soaring against the piled snow of a cloud, a heron flying its far solitary line.

Douglas didn’t write such prose out of the blue. The words evolved from decades of campaigning and learning the craft of writing. In the early 20th century, the Everglades were widely viewed as worthless swamp, a vast, treacherous non-land which would be better off drained and paved. This attitude held sway when Douglas arrived in Florida in 1915, when a paltry 5,000 souls called Miami home. She went to work for her father, Frank Stoneman, at The Miami Herald, and took up his fight against Governor Broward’s plan to drain the Everglades.

She then became deeply involved in the 1920s with pushing for creation of the world’s first national park based on environmental rather than scenic reasons. Her efforts paid off with authorization of the park by Congress in 1934, and its dedication by Harry Truman in 1947, one month after the publication of River of Grass.

Not one to be limited, long before that book Douglas also fought tirelessly for civil rights, women’s suffrage, and the impoverished.

How did she accomplish so much? Through writing. Like John Muir, she toiled at her craft for years, honing her skills, and learning the techniques of creative writing. Douglas trained as a journalist and editor, but she developed her imagery and descriptive power by writing fiction. She wrote novels, plays, and many short stories, forty of which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. She even published hardboiled mystery fiction in the pulp magazine Black Mask. Every word written, every word edited, every word published, inched her closer to her goals.

She wanted to make a difference in the world, to create real change. Many writers do. But you can’t if no one reads you, no matter how passionate you may be. And the way to be read is to write well, and to write well you must put in the hours and learn the craft. There are no shortcuts.

This is Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s great lesson for writers. The things you care about need a voice, and that voice must be more than impassioned. It must be clear and clever, articulate and artful. Douglas committed herself to being the best writer she could be and as a result, when she spoke people stopped and listened. Follow her lead if you want to change the world or just your little corner of it. Write well and then write better.

As long as we’re on the national parks, for a closer look and to help you plan your summer, watch the original preview for Ken Burns’ gorgeous 2009 documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. Marjory features in it. I highly recommend the entire series.

–KP

(Originally published by Florida Writers Association, 2018. Winner of the 2020 Gold Royal Palm Literary Award. Image: Pixabay/FunkWD).

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